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On empowering women and serving God

The ordination of female rabbis aligns with a human rights agenda, but it clearly violates Jewish law

The inevitable finally happened. Rabbi Avi Weiss has dispensed with his prior refusal to call his female ordainees ‘rabbis’. I challenged him to stop dancing around that title with made up titles (like Raba and Maharat) and he finally rose to the challenge.

His motivation in not calling them outright rabbis was the realization that the Orthodox establishment would not accept a female rabbi, no matter how much her learning qualified her to be one. The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) admonished him when he even came close by calling Sara Hurwitz (his first ordainee), rabba, a feminized version of rabbi.

They told him that he would be expelled from the RCA if he ever did that again. He quickly agreed and reverted to his original title, the less offensive Maharat, a Hebrew acronym meaning spiritual leader. He then established a school for that purpose calling it Yeshivat Maharat with Rabba Hurwitz as its head. (For the record, Rabbi Weiss is no longer a member of the RCA.)

I had always maintained that calling a female rabbinic ordainee by any other name made her no less a full fledged rabbi. Which is why I challenged Rabbi Weiss to stop dancing around that title. He nevertheless stuck to the title Maharat. Until now.

Rabbi Weiss has now dropped all pretenses.

Yeshivat Maharat ordains women. Three graduating classes have come forth from that school. This year for the first time they are calling it a semicha (ordination) ceremony (Chag Semicha) and being given the degree all Orthodox Musmachim get, “Yoreh Yoreh.” Which states (based on my own Yoreh Yoreh Semicha document) that they studied Gemarah and Poskim diligently; passed exams; may now rule on matters of Jewish law; and can be called a Rav in Israel. It also states that they can now accept a position in any community as a rabbi.

Accordingly, Rabbi Weiss has told his Maharat graduates that if they choose to use the title rabba or rabbi because it suits their circumstances, that is just fine with him. One of his recent graduates has actually done that.

Ladies and gentleman, I present you with the first American Orthodox female rabbi, Lila Kagedan. She is one of this year’s six graduates of Yeshivat Maharat. Rabbi Kageden now joins Rabbis Sally Priesand (Reform), Sandy Eisenberg Sasso (Reconstructionist), and Amy Elberg (Conservative) as a pioneer in her respective denomination. She has finally broken the glass ceiling of the Orthodox rabbinate.

This must have thrilled Orthodox Jewish feminists all over the world. As human rights consultant Karen Mock put it in her CJN article:

As I sang and danced and celebrated with Lila and her family, I was moved to tears…

I have expressed my antipathy for ordaining women here many times. I am not going to rehash all my arguments against it except to say that these woman will never be accepted into mainstream Orthodoxy. Not in the Haredi world and not in the Centrist world of Modern Orthodoxy. The RCA has stood firm on this issue and has clearly stated its opposition to it as a violation of our Mesorah (tradition).

These two bodies (Haredim and centrists) comprise the vast majority of the Orthodox Jewish world. Leaving only the fringes of the left wing to accept it. A fringe that in my view has long ago abandoned the Mesorah of their teachers… and possibly Orthodoxy itself.

There is one area I would like to address, however. I have been accused of misunderstanding the true motives of the women that do things like this. I have been told that I have no right to ascribe illegitimate motives since I can’t read their minds. How can I know what they are thinking? I have been told very clearly by their defenders — people that know them and know how sincere they are — that I am wrong.

I have been told time and again that these women are completely L’Shma and are doing all this only to serve God in the best way they can. Why have they chosen modalities of men? I have been told that these are mitzvos commandments that they know actually exist and choose them as the best way to serve God in ways meaningful to themselves. They know it is a mitzvah at some level since it is mentioned in the Torah. Indeed there are many mitzvos women are not required to do — that men are. And they do those with permission and reward. And thus they feel they have a right to do any of those they wish. Whether there is a precedent in the mesorah about women doing it or not.

But I always say, Judaism is not about rights. It’s about obligations. So that even if someone has a right to serve God in ways they are not required to, it doesn’t mean they always should. Especially if it has no tradition to it. It is more in line with God’s wishes to serve Him in the ways he commanded them to serve. Focusing instead on other even permissible service – instead of trying to find ways to improve their mandated service is in my view misguided.

Something that seems meaningful to an individual – even if it is based on the fact that it is mandated by God to a specific segment of His people does not mean that it is always meaningful to Him when non mandated segments do it. Sometimes what seems like a legitimate service to God is in fact completely unacceptable to Him.

There is an event in the Torah that illustrates this fact. Much like Orthodox feminist women, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu had similar motivations. Sacrifices being known to be pleasing to God they were inspired to act on their own and offer God an unasked for sacrifice. They were instantly killed for that.

How could it be that an act designed to please God based on what they knew about such acts would end up being their demise? When Chazal analyzed this event, they concluded that Nadav and Avihu were not as L‘Shma as this event made them seem on the surface. I think we can learn from this that personal feelings about how to serve God are not always right. Sometimes they are very wrong. Especially if they are not as L’Shma as those doing them think they are.

Everything I read about Orthodox feminism is about empowering women. The accolades are about Orthodoxy finally giving women a leadership role. Nothing about giving women better ways to serve God.

I am often accused of mis-attributing ulterior motives to Orthodox feminists. But I don’t see any other way to understand it – if over and over again one reads articles like the one in CJN, which talks about women’s empowerment. This seems to be the message in every instance that Orthodox feminists challenge Orthodox tradition.

Sure, Orthodox feminists will say it is ultimately all about serving God when they are directly challenged along those lines. But when they are unchallenged and talk freely about their goals it is mostly about empowering women and a lot less about serving God. I don’t think that is arguable.

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.
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